Halloween is here and what better way to set the scary scene than to play scary music. Many classical and orchestral pieces evoke feelings of creepiness and suspense. We’ve put together a playlist of some of our favorites, and here you can read a little about the songs’ histories and how they’ve become familiar spooky themes. Much of this information you can find on Wikipedia if you want to know more. We’ve even put together a playlist (at the end) so that you can play these works in the background of your Halloween party, haunted house or when answering the door for Treat or Treaters. You’re sure you’ll have spooky fun time.
Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue BMV 565 was used as film music well before the sound film era, so it’s become synonymous with horror. It was first used in sound film in 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and then in the 1934 film The Black Cat. In 1936, animators at Disney suggested to combine video of the orchestra with animations, but Disney was slow to do it. It wasn’t until 1940 that it was included in Fantasia, which helped make Toccata and Fugue in D minor well known. Other films that it has appeared in include, Sunset Boulevard (1950), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and Rollerball (1975).
O Fortuna, Carmina Burana by Carl Orff
O Fortuna is a medieval Latin Goliardic poem written early in the 13th century, part of the collection known as the Carmina Burana. It is a complaint about Fortuna, the inexorable fate that rules both gods and men in Roman and Greek mythology. Some have called O Fortuna “the most overused piece of music in film history”, because you probably recognize it from many movies and commercials, such as Disney’s G-Force (2009) and the TV show Scream Queens. Interestingly, the song is used at the matriculation ceremony at the University of Oslo every year.
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Night on Bald Mountain, also known as Night on the Bare Mountain, is a series of compositions inspired by Russian literary works and legend. Mussorgsky composed a “musical picture”, St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain on the theme of a witches’ sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve, which he completed on that very night, 23 June 1867. Together with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko (1867), it is one of the first tone poems by a Russian composer. Part of the orchestral version is heard during the chase scenes at the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. It also appears in Fantasia.
Black Angels – Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects by George Crumb
Night of the Electric Insects is hard to leave off a list of creepy instrumental/orchestral music. George Crumb is an American composer of avant-garde music. He is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation, and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. Black Angels (1971), subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, is a work for an “electric string quartet”. It was composed over the course of a year, but on the score it is dated “Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970”. Crumb is very interested in numerology and structured the piece around the numbers 13 and 7. The piece is known for its unconventional instrumentation, which uses electric string instruments, crystal glasses, and two suspended tam-tam gongs. Night of the Electric Insects is featured in one of the scariest movies, for me, The Exorcist. And David Bowie had listed Black Angels as one of his 25 favorite records
The Planets: Mars the Bringer of War by Gustav Holst
The Planets, Op. 32, is a seven-movement orchestral suite with each movement named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities, as believed in astrology. John Williams used the melodies and instrumentation of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for Star Wars, specifically The Imperial March. Hans Zimmer closely used the melodies, instrumentation and orchestration of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the movie Gladiator, so much so that the Holst foundation filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg
In the Hall of the Mountain King (1875) was incidental music for the sixth scene of act 2 in Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt. The piece is played as the title character Peer Gynt, in a dream-like fantasy, enters “Dovregubben (the troll Mountain King)’s hall”. You’ve probably heard this song many times in popular culture. It’s used when The Smurfs are in danger, in Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004), and is in the movie Trolls a techo version is used for the song Hair Up.
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14: 5th Movement by Hector Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts) Op. 14, is a program symphony and is an important piece of the early Romantic period. In this piece you listen to the music for the story, the character sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, with ghosts, sorcerers and monsters who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, outbursts of laughter, and distant shouts seem to be answered by more shouts. The funeral bell tolls, a parody of the Dies irae combined with the witches’ dance. Berlioz wrote this symphony after seeing Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Hamlet. He sent her many love letters, which all were unanswered. He then wrote the symphony in 1830 as a way to express his unrequited love. She eventually heard it in 1832 and realized his genius. The two finally met, and they were married on 3 October 1833.
Requiem Kv 626 -3 Sequentia Dies Irae by Mozart
Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) is a Latin hymn. It was common for composers to create their own version of the hymn. The Requiem in D minor, K. 626, is a requiem mass by Mozart. Mozart composed part of the Requiem in Vienna in late 1791, but it was unfinished at his death in the same year. A completed version dated 1792 by Franz Xaver Süssmayr was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg, who commissioned the piece for a Requiem service to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s death on 14 February. Both Mozart’s and Verdi’s versions have become synonymous with impending doom in TV and movies.
Le Carnaval Des Animaux (Carnival of the Animals), Zoological Fantasy – Aquarium by Camille Saint-Saëns
The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux) is a humorous musical suite of fourteen movements by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It is written for two violins, viola, cello, two pianos, flute, and glass harmonica. The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, on top of tumultuous, glissando-like runs in the piano. While the piece is evocative of a peaceful, dimly-lit aquarium, it has been used to set a mood eeriness in films, most notably in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. In 2016, The Wiggles released The Carnival of the Animals to introduced children to classical music and instruments.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
Written in 1897 as a symphonic poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem. It is the most performed and recorded works by Dukas. And when you hear the name of it now, you most likely think of certain mouse wearing a blue hat with stars and a red robe. That’s because of Disney’s Fantasia. Prior to Fantasia, it was included in William Cameron Menzies’ and Joseph M. Schenck’s series of four short films of classical music. One of the four, was titled The Wizard’s Apprentice, and you can clearly see its influence on Disney. Both show the dangers of taking shortcuts and have an eerie quality.
12 piano variations in C on a Minuet from Haibel’s Le Nozze Disturbate WoO69 Variations IV by Beethoven
When Beethoven wrote this variation of Le Nozze Disturbate, there was a ready market for piano variations in Vienna. Beethoven wrote more than a dozen sets of variations for piano between 1793 and 1801. Each was published within a few months of its composition. Beethoven used these variations as a quick way to make money. They were mostly variations on known themes from popular or familiar operas. Haibel’s ballet ‘Le Nozze Disturbate’ was performed by Schikaneder’s theater company in Vienna. From it, Beethoven selected the “Menuet a la Vigano” in order to write variations to it. If you listen closely, you may be able to spot how this song influenced Danny Elfman when he wrote Sally’s Song in the Nightmare Before Christmas.
Written by Amelia Vitarelli, owner and educator of My Little Conservatory in San Jose, CA. Amelia has be enriching the lives of children in Silicon Valley for over 20 years.